Time stops, generations meet on Haines fair's Ferris wheel

Heather Lende

HAINES -- Why is it that a rickety metal Ferris wheel, which doesn’t look very big or spin very fast, is more thrilling for 4-year-old Caroline and her grandmother -- that would be me -- than the speediest high-tech theme park splash-and-roll ride?

Maybe it’s the slow, herky-jerky way our painted bench seat rocks as we ride up and up and up and then over. Maybe it’s the narrow bar that’s all there is between us and eternity, it seems, or maybe it’s the unexpectedly wide bird’s-eye-view.

We saw the whole fair from the top of that Ferris wheel. The roof of the big red barn with the chickens, rabbits, goats and alpacas inside in their hay- and manure-scented pens and stalls. Up high, it looked kind of small, and the brightly painted food booths could have been toy boxes. The striped top of the merry-go-round was even more cheerful from above than it was when we rode around and around, on what surely must be antique, or at the very least “vintage,” carousel horses. (My guess is they were “used” when they arrived at the fair decades ago.)

Maybe riding the Ferris wheel at the Southeast Alaska State Fair with a child dear to me is my favorite hand-tingling, breath-catching thing to do in the whole world (this week anyway) because it took me to a place out of time, while remaining smack in the middle of the place I love and call home -- Haines -- during the best day of the year. Being here with a grandchild who lives just across town from me makes it even better. Or maybe just knowing that there are some things that stay the same even as so many things change is why this Ferris wheel and this small  community fair is such a comfort.

Plus, I was drunk on sun, and so was everyone else. The great weather made everyone smile, and everything about the fair -- from the food to the music to the exhibits -- is easy to love. The fair was the first time we’ve had four consecutive days of sunshine since May. June and July broke rainfall records in Haines. July had 6.6 inches (1.55 is normal). The last time we had about five inches rain in July, the previous record, was in 1950, before the 46-year-old fair had even begun.

Even with just about everyone in town at the fairgrounds, and twice that many guests from all over Southeast Alaska and the Yukon in Haines for the long weekend (I heard state authorities granted special permission to add more passengers on Friday’s ferry from Juneau), even with the so-called crowds, there was still plenty of elbow room below the Ferris wheel on the fair lawns and dirt paths. Caroline and I spotted many of her friends and mine.

We talked about the fair parade. I liked the marching band, whose uniforms were tie-dyed T-shirts, jeans, and Xtratuf rubber boots, even if they only knew one or two songs, and Caroline liked the firemen who tossed candy from their trucks.

I told her about riding my first Ferris wheel, when I was a teenager at a street fair in New York, where I grew up. I didn’t mention the part about kissing a boy on the top. I can still remember the lights below us, but not his name.

So maybe that’s why as we went around for another loop (Mark Allen, the volunteer operator, sent us by three times, and said we could try it again, but we’d had enough by then), it was a challenge not to tell Caroline to be sure she remembered this moment, rocking in the metal seat holding my hand, high above her whole world, and mine as well -- to take a good long look so she’d never forget whom she was with on the Ferris wheel.  

I don’t recall much about being 4, but maybe she will remember this moment, and maybe someday she will tell the story of riding on a real Ferris wheel -- a mechanical one with grinding gears and a sputtering engine -- with her grandmother at the Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines, high above the booths and people and trees and up where the mountains meet the sea and the sky in her hometown.

Haines author Heather Lende’s third book, “Find the Good,” will be published in the spring of 2015. Until then, check her blog or Facebook page